It's Saturday morning in Dubbo, about 400 kilometres northwest of Sydney. The sky is grey, not from rain clouds but from a dust storm whipping topsoil off distant properties devastated by drought. The Macquarie River, which runs through town and feeds into the Murray-Darling system, is covered in green sludge and has long stopped flowing. The outlook should be bleak, and yet Dubbo is booming.
Locals pour in to the Def Chef in the city's main thoroughfare, Macquarie Street. Owners Cong Phap Bui and Tuyen Tran arrived from their native Vietnam to study in Sydney six years ago. When their visas expired they wanted to stay in Australia, which would be possible if they worked in a rural area for at least two years. They were sponsored by a migration body covering Orana, the region that embraces Dubbo and about a quarter of outback NSW.
Phap recalls their first impression of Dubbo.
"It was very quiet, very sunny and very hot," he says. "There were not many people walking in the street."
Three years later, it's a different scene. Neither Phap nor Tuyen had run a business before they went to Dubbo. They now work seven days a week, starting at 6.30am. When I managed to get a breakfast table, I noticed they have two young local women on their waiting staff; they also employ two chefs. And last June, eight months after they bought the business, they received permanent residency in Australia.
"We thought of returning to Sydney, but it's very crowded there," Phap says. "Dubbo is very friendly, and isn't quiet anymore!"
Stories like this are also unfolding elsewhere in town. Two more Vietnamese cafes do brisk business further along Macquarie Street. Around the corner in Talbragar Street, the Tanoshi Japanese restaurant sits opposite the Great Wall, an Asian supermarket that opened in July. Eateries in surrounding streets have created a competitive cafe culture that Dubbo locals could once only have dreamed of.
Macquarie Street looks prosperous and handsome: at one end is the 1887 post office designed by colonial architect James Barnet; at the other is the two-storey Old Bank building, now a bar crowded each night with young professionals. Between them sits the statue Dubbo unveiled last May of pioneering Aboriginal rights activist William Ferguson.
In the middle of one of Australia's worst droughts, Dubbo projects a sense of progressive confidence. It started as a trading post in 1849 on the state's vast western plains, when sheep, cattle and white settlers were moving in. Many settlements further west have since faded or become ghost towns.
Former local radio host Dugald Saunders, the Nationals MP for the state seat of Dubbo, calls the city the "capital of the west." He estimates that about 60 multicultural groups rub along there. Ben Shields, Dubbo's mayor, has overseen four citizenship ceremonies so far this year, admitting 134 new citizens; the most recent one, in September, included people from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
At 2 per cent, Dubbo's unemployment rate is less than half the statewide figure, and not much more than a third of Australia's 5.3 per cent. Its population of 43,000 people, about 14 per cent identifying as Aboriginal, is growing at a rate of 1.4 per cent a year, a feat matched by few other country areas. Australia's overall population growth rate of 1.6 per cent, higher than average for rich countries, is driven mainly by people pouring in to the big state capital cities.
Peter McDonald, a demographer at the University of Melbourne, calculates that Dubbo and Albury-Wodonga are the two fastest-growing inland country towns in Australia; their combined populations are rising by 2000 people a year (compared with 2000 a week for Melbourne, the fastest-growing capital).
Governments have talked for decades about decentralising Australia's population away from the big seaboard cities. Dubbo has become a showcase of how it's finally working. Duplicating its success elsewhere, though, will be a challenge.
I first visited the Dubbo region as a student from Sydney with a summer holiday job, driving a truck laden with freshly harvested wheat to a railway silo at Geurie, a hamlet about 25 kilometres east of Dubbo. Back then, people talked pretty much only about two subjects: wheat and wool. Several decades later, the change is striking.
Although this year's harvesting season is approaching, the paddocks around Dubbo won't be yielding any grain. The ground has been too dry for farmers to grow anything. Burrendong Dam on the Macquarie River, a primary source of irrigation and town water, is just 4.2 per cent full. Plans are afoot to access water caught in the dam's outlet valve, but this fallback step offers only an extra four months' supply. With their river allocations stopped, farmers are competing with townsfolk for access to artesian water; but without rainfall, groundwater, too, is not being replenished.
Even in normal times, agriculture had slowly ceded its economic dominance to other industries, as Dubbo grew inexorably into a service town for places like Geurie and Wellington in the east and others as far away as Bourke, about 370 kilometres west.
"No single business or industry is the mainstay now," says Matt Wright, president of the Dubbo Chamber of Commerce.
Wright runs Money Quest Dubbo, a mortgage and finance broking company. Real estate is among Dubbo's top three industries by value. Houses in town trade for a median price of about $360,000. "Dubbo is a very competitive place to live," says Wright. But the biggest employers are health services, retail and construction, in that order.
Geoff Wise, a former NSW western lands commissioner long involved in Dubbo's community affairs, identifies three places whose growing service roles have helped to boost Dubbo's economy: its stock saleyard, one of the biggest in Australia (where more sheep and cattle are now being shipped out than shipped in); its hospital; and its airport. The last place is undergoing a remarkable transformation.
Dubbo's location at the crossroads of the Mitchell Highway to Sydney, the Golden Highway to Newcastle and the Newell Highway to Queensland had long made it a road transport hub. Sydney once offered the only direct air link to a capital city. Now, you can fly with various airlines directly to Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane and Newcastle as well. The airport's passenger numbers have more than doubled in the past 15 years. They are just one part of the airport's boom.
I met Wright in a sprawling new cafe attached to the airport's latest addition, the Royal Flying Doctor Service Visitor Experience. This new walk-through exhibition looks likely to rival the Taronga Western Plains Zoo at Dubbo as a major tourist drawcard. In another part of the airport's grounds, construction was under way on the second stage of a new training base for the NSW Rural Fire Service; the first stage, bringing in volunteer firefighters from across the state, opened in July. A new flying doctor training centre has also opened at the airport. And work is due to start next year, elsewhere in Dubbo, on yet another project: a maintenance centre for a new fleet of rural and interstate passenger trains that eventually will replace the state's entire XPT train fleet.
Like water, they'll find their own tracks here. We don't go out to recruit visa people. They just come.Business owner Roger Fletcher
Dubbo Hospital is growing with state and federal funds, and a new cancer treatment centre is on the way. The University of Sydney is expanding the Dubbo campus of a rural health school it runs jointly in Dubbo and Orange; part of the university's Sydney Medical School, it is designed to train doctors in the challenges of health in rural areas. School manager Kim O'Connor says these challenges grow ever greater: "Drought, climate change, mental health and their impact on rural people are all a big worry. We need to train young people for this instead of losing them to the cities."
A synergy is emerging between all these big projects. Doctors from the flying doctors' new training centre sometimes teach at the rural health school.
"Students interested in emergency medicine love it," O'Connor says. All this opens the sort of problem that many rural communities would like to have. With low unemployment and construction projects estimated at $5 billion due over the next five years, Matt Wright worries that "there won't be enough workers to fill the jobs."
Making their own tracks
Earlier this year, the federal government launched its latest bid to encourage people to move to places like Dubbo. The Morrison government is offering 25,000 extra visas that will give immigrants permanent residency in Australia if they work for three years in a regional area. It has also signed Designated Area Migration Agreements, or DAMAs, with seven regions around Australia (including Orana, in which Dubbo lies), allowing employers to sponsor skilled and semiskilled workers from overseas if they can't find them locally.
But some question if a political strategy of steering more people into regional cities can work. In a paper written last year for the University of Melbourne, the demographer Peter McDonald argues that the global economy is moving towards megacities. Australia, he suggests, will be no exception: "There should not be an expectation that future growth of the Australian population... can be redirected in anything other than a minor way to regional Australia."
Cutting immigration to give the big cities breathing space, says McDonald, is "flawed logic": those cities will always have a bigger variety of jobs and greater demand for workers. If immigration can't supply them, the big cities will draw them from other parts of Australia, meaning places like Dubbo will lose people, not gain them.
McDonald tells me that Dubbo and similar country towns are attracting young families as new residents, drawn by their promise, prosperity and affordable housing. For immigrants, though, the big test will be whether they stay after fulfilling pathways to permanent residency; "strong evidence," he says, suggests that many then relocate to big cities. McDonald questions the government's policy of promising extra points to immigrants if they go to a region. The approach would be more effective, he argues, if local employers had a bigger say in selecting immigrants and matching them to their regions' specific demands.
In some Dubbo businesses, that is happening already. At least two have also managed to adapt the old mainstay, agriculture, to changing consumer tastes in the outside world.
One of them is Fletcher International Exports, a family company run by Roger Fletcher. Since the Dubbo plant opened almost 30 years ago, the company has started a second one at Albany in Western Australia - "to help alleviate climatic risk," says Fletcher, whose wife Gail and three children are also involved in the business. The company now exports lamb and sheep meat, skins, wool and grains to eighty countries. Five years ago, it started running its own freight trains from the Dubbo plant to the Port Botany export terminal in Sydney, keeping control over goods until they leave the country.
With about 700 workers, Fletcher is Dubbo's biggest private employer (there are 500 more staff in Western Australia). Drought has slightly dented the Dubbo workforce's size but not its enthusiasm, or Roger Fletcher's keenness to hire people from any background who can do the work. He also runs a training program for Aboriginal workers.
Fletcher can't say what proportion of his staff are immigrants.
"Like water, they'll find their own tracks here. We don't go out to recruit visa people. They just come," he says.
"They're from about 30 nationalities in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. They have all sorts of visas, including those for skilled workers. Some have bought houses and live here. One of the greatest achievements out of this is that no one group of people is above the other. It's the best workforce I've ever had. And it's happened over the past 10 to 15 years."
What made him choose Dubbo to build his plant?
"It's the central point for sheep in eastern Australia," says Fletcher. "A selling centre, a logical location."
Dubbo also owes its growth to the smaller towns it now services.
"It wouldn't be where it is without the back country," says Fletcher. "It's vitally important that we look after those towns north, south and west."
Fletcher's sheep meat is slaughtered according to Halal practice and Islamic rites. Foreign customers visit the plant every day of the year. On the grain side, he worries that the drought means he has "broken the chain" with customers in Asia.
"But out of all bad comes good," Fletcher says. "Out of this drought, good things will come."
Finding a niche
Just beyond the white, timber Rawsonville Bridge, Emma and Jim Elliott are at work on their farm, the Little Big Dairy. Emma's family, the Chesworths, started the business after they moved there from the Hunter Valley fifteen years ago. Dubbo, hot, dry and drought-prone, is hardly conventional dairy country, but the family took a risk mainly for environmental reasons, says Emma: the Hunter's coalmines were affecting its groundwater; Dubbo has more secure groundwater supplies; and Dubbo's lower humidity and flatter landscape make life easier for cows.
The Little Big Dairy has created what might be called "niche milk." Emma's parents and her brother have built a herd of about 1000 Holstein cattle for milking on the farm and export as breeders. Emma and Jim market and distribute the milk in big, colourful trucks that go as far as Sydney, Canberra and Lightning Ridge. In Dubbo, they sell to supermarkets, butchers, fruit shops and cafes, including Def Chef.
Their key selling point is to call their milk "single source": a claim that every litre can be traced to the cow it came from. High-end cafes are playing up the provenance of their milk now, "as they've been doing with coffee beans," says Emma.
"That's why we've kept control of the distribution as well, instead of sending milk out to faceless processors."
Like Fletcher, they employ many working-visa immigrants, mainly French in their case.
"They just arrive and ask for jobs," says Emma. "It makes it easier for us because it's hard to find local people to do farm work."
The drought has hit them, too. Locally grown grains are no longer available to feed their cattle; they can irrigate sparingly from groundwater, but not from the Macquarie. But they think their business has contributed to Dubbo's "high-end cafe culture," helping to change the town's image along the way.
Another view of the boom
A few minutes out of Dubbo, at Wongarbon, a hamlet of about 700 people, I encounter a different view of the city's prospects. Brett Garling, a noted sculptor and artist, runs a gallery in what was once Wongarbon's general store. It was Garling who sculpted the statue of William Ferguson in Dubbo's main street, and he is now working on a sculpture series to commemorate the horses that once worked in Hunter Valley coalmines.
Garling went to Dubbo High School, but he's in no hurry to move to what has become a regional boom town. Wongarbon's smallness, serenity and seclusion suit him fine. He shops mainly in Wellington, a once-prosperous town further east that has struggled as Dubbo has flourished. "To support Wellington," he explains.
Perhaps it's Garling's life as a landscape artist that makes him challenge those who reckon Dubbo's expansion has few limits, that its growth has really only just begun. Mayor Ben Shields, for instance, enthuses about a proposal last January from the tech billionaire Elon Musk to build a road tunnel under the Blue Mountains for $1 billion, cutting travel time west from Sydney. "That would open Dubbo up even more," says Shields.
"I don't agree with the forecast of 100,000 people for Dubbo in twenty years," Garling responds.
"In the middle of the worst drought, why should that be? We have a river here that can't sustain 40,000 people, let alone 100,000. Tell farmers around here that climate change doesn't exist and they'd laugh in your face."
Garling pauses, then concedes that Dubbo has "a whole lot of city services and opportunities the west needs." He adds with a chuckle: "It doesn't mean I have to like it!" .
- Robert Milliken is a regular contributor to Inside Story, where this article also appears. Funding from the Copyright Agency Limited's Cultural Fund is gratefully acknowledged.